October 3: Revelation 9:1-12

Revelation 9:1-12

The fifth and sixth Trumpet-visions should be considered together, just as the first four visions form a single group (cf. the previous note); however, due to the extensive detail in which each is presented in the text, it is necessary to treat them in separate daily notes.

Rev 9:1

The fifth vision, in its initial imagery, is similar to the third (8:10-11) in which a fiery star (a)sth/r) falls from heaven to earth. Most likely there is a play on the imagery in the two visions. In the third vision, we are presumably dealing with a natural celestial phenomenon (such as a meteor), despite the extraordinary effects it produces (poisoning a third of all rivers and springs). Here in the fifth vision, by contrast, the star is personified:

“…I saw a star having fallen out of heaven into/onto the earth, and the key of the pit th(at is) without depth [i.e. bottomless] was given to him” (v. 1)

The star is thus treated like a celestial/heavenly being (i.e. Angel) with power/control over the depths of the earth. In Near Eastern and Old Testament tradition, the stars were typically seen as divine beings, or Angels (Judg 5:20; Job 38:7, etc), as also in the symbolism used in Rev 1:20, etc. Moreover, in the Old Testament and Jewish tradition, the various celestial phenomena were controlled (by God) through heavenly Messengers (Angelic beings); this was expressed earlier in Rev 7:1-3.

The image of a falling star, or Angel, could conceivably allude to Satan or a similar demonic being (i.e. ‘fallen angel’), reflected in such passages as Luke 10:18 and Rev 12:7-9 (cf. also the negative connotations in Isa 14:12 and 1 Enoch 86:3; 88:1-3; 90:24-26; Koester, p. 456). However, the idea that this Star/Angel was given the key to the bottomless pit suggests positive divine presence and control (1:18; 3:7; cf. also 20:1-3). At the very least, the motif of falling, with its echo of the third vision, anticipates the destructive and demonic character of what comes out of the depths. The translation of a&busso$ (lit. “without depth”) can be misleading; in ordinary English idiom, “bottomless” (i.e. without a bottom limit to its depth) would be a more accurate rendering. The Greek is preserved as a transliterated loan-word in English (“abyss”). It occurs several more times in the book, as the location from whence demonic beings arise, and as the place where they belong (11:7; 17:8; 20:1-3). In at least one line of ancient Greek cosmology, the space under the earth, corresponding to the atmosphere (hemisphere) above, was bounded by a long and almost limitless gulf below (Homer Iliad 8.14-15f; Hesiod Theogony 119, etc) called by the name of ta/rtaro$ (of uncertain derivation).

Rev 9:2-3

The ominous character of this scene is expressed by a two-fold description of that which emerges from the bottomless pit—(a) immense, dark smoke, and (b) a terrifying swarm of locust:

“And he opened up the pit th(at is) without depth—and smoke [kapno/$] stepped up [i.e. came up] out of the pit, as the smoke of a great burning (oven), and the sun and the air were darkened out of [i.e. from] the smoke of the pit. (v. 2)
And out of the smoke there came out locusts [a)kri/de$] into/onto the earth; and authority [e)cousi/a] was given to them, (even) as the stinging (creature)s [skorpi/oi] of the earth hold authority.” (v. 3)

The image of smoke (kapno/$) continues the fire-imagery of the visions, as well as the motif of darkening (the sun, etc) common to ancient Judgment imagery and as expressed in the prior fourth vision (8:12). This fiery smoke also evokes the idea of warfare, as do the locusts which emerge in vv. 3ff. There are actually several aspects to the symbolism of a swarm of locust:

    • Destruction—as of the crops which are consumed/destroyed by locust, a potential disaster always in the mind of ancient farmers
    • Military attack—the swarm of locust symbolizing an army on the move
    • Pestilence—locusts themselves represent a terrible plague on humankind, and they can be used as representative of various kinds of plagues (diseases, etc)

All three aspects are relevant (and intended) here, and draw upon traditional imagery in the Old Testament, beginning with the Plagues on Egypt (Exod 10:4, 12-19; Psalm 105:34)—cf. Deut 28:38; Judg 6:5; 7:12; 1 Kings 8:37; Psalm 78:46; Prov 30:27; Joel 1:4; 2:25; Amos 4:9; 7:1; Nah 3:15-17; Jer 46:23; 51:14, 27. These locusts are distinguished from ordinary locust in that they have been given the power/ability to sting, like other insects/creatures (such as the scorpion, i.e. skorpi/oi).

Rev 9:4-6

These verses give further detail on the stinging power of these locusts. It was declared to them, i.e. by the Angel who released them, that they should not “take away justice” from (vb. a)dike/w, i.e. injure) the trees, grass or other vegetation (“green [plant]s”) of the earth. They would have power only over human beings (“men”), and then only over those who “do not hold the seal of God upon the (space) between the eyes [i.e. forehead]”. This seal (sfragi/$), mentioned previously in 7:2-3ff (cf. also the visions in chaps. 5-6), refers to the distinctive image impressed into clay or wax (or lead) marking an object as belonging to a person. This image (to be described in 14:1) consists of the names of God and the Lamb (i.e. the risen Jesus); however, at this point in the book, this detail has to be inferred, based on the context of chapters 5-6. Those who are sealed are identified as the true people of God—utilizing the traditional image of Israel (the twelve tribes) as God’s people. In the context of the book of Revelation (as in Rom 9-11, etc), this imagery refers to the people of God (Israel) who are believers in Christ (the Lamb). The seal also carries the idea of election—it was God (and the Lamb) who stamped them.

As for those who do not carry this seal, they will be afflicted (but not killed) for a (symbolic) period of “five months” (v. 5). The verb used is basani/zw, a word of uncertain derivation, which specifically (and originally) referred to the testing of metals (gold/silver, coinage, etc). The harsh treatment required by such testing eventually led to the word as signifying torture, etc, as a means of ascertaining the truth. Here the implication is that the torment these people will endure from the locusts reflects, and will demonstrate, their true nature—i.e., as those who do not belong to God. What they suffer will be like the poisonous stings of the scorpion, resulting in agony that will make them long for death as a relief (v. 6). In spite of the military imagery which follows (vv. 7ff), it is clear that this refers to pestilence or disease.

Rev 9:7-11

A detailed description of the stinging locusts follows in these verses. Previously in the book, most of the imagery has been traditional and relatively straightforward; from this point on, it becomes increasingly complex, causing great difficulty for commentators and those eager to understand exactly what is being described. The hybrid depiction of these locusts is striking indeed; note the rather bizarre combination of elements:

    • they have the overall likeness of “horses made ready for war”, immediately indicating a military motif (i.e. war-horses, cavalry)
    • there are objects like golden crowns upon their heads, indicating the power to achieve victory (i.e. in military combat)
    • they have human faces (“like the faces of men”)
    • they also have long flowing hair (“like the hair of women”)
    • their teeth are long and sharp (“like [those] of lions”)
    • they each wear a chest-guard or armor (qw/rac), with the appearance of iron
    • their wings make the sound of “many horse(-drawn) chariots running into battle”
    • they have tails like a scorpion (lit. stinging creature [skorpi/o$]), with a stinging point (ke/ntron) on the tail

This admittedly strange mixture of features makes more sense once we realize that it is an attempt to combine several kinds of imagery, each with its own symbolic significance:

    • Military—armor, horses, and the rush into battle, with the power/ability to conquer
    • Personification—the human attributes indicate something of the purpose and control which these creatures possess
    • Demonic—images with hybrid human & animal features were commonly used in the ancient Near East to represent deities (and their attributes); from the standpoint of Jewish and early Christian monotheism, all such (pagan) deities tended to be regarded as demonic, or as symbolizing the demonic. In particular, there is likely a reflection here of the religious-royal iconography associated with the conquering Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian empires.
    • The Scorpion—special emphasis is given to the (poisonous) stinging tail of creatures such as the scorpion
Rev 9:11

“They hold upon [i.e. over] them as king the Messenger of the (pit) without depth [a&busso$]—the name for him in Hebrew is Abaddôn, and in Greek (this) name holds as ‘Destroyer’ [Apollu/wn].”

This army of locust has as its ruler (basileu/$) a being called “the Messenger of the (pit) without depth” (i.e. Angel of the bottomless [pit]). It is not entirely clear if this is the same being as the Star/Angel which opened up the bottomless pit, or whether it reflects a different being (i.e. one who rules over the pit below); probably the latter is intended. The Hebrew name indicated here—/oDb^a&, transliterated as Abaddw/n in Greek and Abaddon in English—is derived from the verb db^a* (“perish, ruin, destroy”), and originally referred to the grave/underworld as a place of death and decay; in this regard, it was roughly synonymous with Heb. loav= (Sheol). The word is used in this general/neutral sense in the Old Testament (Psalm 88:11; Prov 15:11; Job 26:6; 28:22, etc). Only in later Jewish tradition, did it come to take on a more negative and hostile/evil connotation, as in the Qumran texts (1QH XI.19ff; 4Q491 8-10; 11Q11 4.10). The Greek name Apollu/wn, is a relatively faithful translation, at least in terms of capturing the later (negative/hostile) sense of the word; it is related to the verb a)po/llumi (lit. “cause/suffer loss from”, i.e. “ruin, destroy”, similar in meaning to Heb. db^a*) and the noun a)pw/leia (“loss, ruin, destruction”). Simply put, the name signifies the power which brings about suffering and death; personified as a divine (or semi-divine) being, it would naturally be identified with Satan and the fallen angels (and/or unclean spirits) in Jewish and Christian tradition.

Rev 9:12

The concluding words of this vision echo those earlier in 8:13:

“One woe has come along—see! two (more) woes (are) yet (to) come after these (thing)s!”

An interpretation of the vision as a whole will be offered in summary after the sixth vision (9:13-21) has been discussed in the next daily note.

Saturday Series: 1 John 2:18-27

Last week we embarked on a series of studies on the Letters of John, beginning with the ‘prologue’ of 1 John (1:1-4). We noted the similarities with the Prologue (1:1-18) of the Gospel of John, an indication that the author is drawing upon both the manner of expression and the fundamental thought of the Johannine Gospel. This is particularly important in the light of the relation of the Letters (and the Gospel) to the Johannine Community—that group of congregations, presumably unified in thought and organization, in which those writings were produced and circulated. It is worth considering again the wording in 1:3-4, especially the use of the subjunctive in the central clause (note the portion in italics):

“th(at) which we have seen and heard we also give forth as a message to you, that you also might hold common (bond) with us; and, indeed, our common (bond) (is) with the Father and with His Son Yeshua (the) Anointed, and we write these (thing)s (so) that our delight (in it) may be made full.”

It would seem that the force of the subjunctive éch¢te, “that you might hold, that you would hold”, is part of a deliberative rhetoric by the author—meant to convince his readers to align themselves with his view, and to avoid/reject the opposing position. This seems clear enough from the language used: “that you might also hold common (bond) with us“. The two pronouns are in emphatic position; and, indeed, as we shall see, there is a definite us/them contrast that runs through the letters. Most commentators would interpret this as a sign of a serious conflict within the Community, even though the precise nature and extent of it remains uncertain.

1 John 2:18-27

Today’s study will focus on 1 John 2:18-27, from the standpoint, primarily, of historical criticism—that is, of determining the historical background and setting of both the particular passage and the work as a whole. Sound historical-critical analysis must begin with text as we have it, working from it based on careful exegesis. Even if it is necessary to read between the lines a bit, this ought to be done in a cautious manner; indeed, it is just at this point that close scrutiny of specific words and phrases is most vital.

Before proceeding, it will be helpful to examine briefly the two prior passages—2:3-11 and 12-17. The first is a three-fold discussion regarding Christian identity which is fundamental to the overall argument of the writing. It begins as follows, in verse 3:

“And in this we know that we have known him—if we keep watch (over) his entolai.”

The Greek plural entolaí is typically translated “commandments”, but this can be somewhat misleading in context. Literally, the word entol¢¡ refers to a charge or duty placed on (i.e. given to) someone to complete. The conventional translation suggests that the author is referring to something like the ‘commandments’ in the Law of Moses, or a similar set of commands given by Jesus in his teaching. This, however, does not appear to be correct, a point which will be discussed in more detail in an upcoming study. In the Johannine tradition, and for the author of 1 John, there is only one ‘command’ or duty for believers, and it is a dual, two-fold command, stately precisely in 3:23:

    • Trust in Jesus as God’s Son, and
    • Love for fellow believers, according to Jesus’ own example

These are the marks of a true Christian. In verses 4-11, the author lays out three basic ‘tests’ for one who claims to be a true believer:

    • “the one considering [i.e. claiming] (that) ‘I have known him‘”, but who does not keep/guard the two-fold command (“his entolai“) [vv. 4-5]
    • “the one considering (himself) to remain in him, but does not walk (i.e. live/act/behave) as Jesus walked, i.e. who does not follow Jesus’ own example [vv. 6ff]
    • “the one considering (himself) to be in the Light, but does not show love to his fellow believer (“hating his brother”), and so is actually in darkness [vv. 9-11]

Such a ‘false’ believer, being in darkness, cannot possibly belong to God, given the declaration in 1:5 (cf. also 2:8, and throughout the Gospel and First Letter). In 2:12-17, the focus shifts from the false believer to the true, and the author writes exhorting and admonishing his readers (as true believers), to remain in the truth, avoiding/resisting that which is false and evil, living according to the Word of God that remains in them (v. 14). In vv. 15-17, this is framed as part of the dualistic contrast between God and the world (kósmos, the current world-order).

This brings us to 2:18-27, which opens with an ominous (eschatological) warning:

“Little children, it is the last hour, and, even as you (have) heard that (one who is) against the Anointed [antíchristos] comes, even now there have come to be many (who are) against the Anointed [antíchristoi], (from) which we know that it is the last hour.”

The significance of both the ‘Antichrist’ tradition and the imminent eschatology in this passage will be discussed as part of the current series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”. What is clear is that (a) the author believed he and his readers were living in the “last hour” of the current Age, and (b) that this was indicated by the rise of these persons who are “against the Anointed One”. Whatever the author’s understanding of an underlying ‘Antichrist’ tradition (i.e. such as expressed in 2 Thess 2:1-12), he is using the term antíchristos differently, according to the basic meaning of the word—to characterize belief and/or behavior which is “against Christ”, or, more specifically, “against Jesus as the Anointed One”. In each verse that follows, the author describes those who are “against the Anointed”, and, at the same time, urges his readers not to follow in their path.

Verse 19

“They went out of us [ex h¢mœ¡n] but they were not out of us [ex h¢mœ¡n], for if they were out of us [ex h¢mœ¡n], they would have remained with us [meth’ h¢mœ¡n]; but (this happened so) that it might be made to shine forth [i.e. be revealed] that they all were not out of us [ex h¢mœ¡n].”

There is a bit of wordplay, using the expression ex h¢mœ¡n (“out of us”), which is lost in most English translations. It plays on two meanings of the preposition ex (e)c, “out of”). In the first use of the expression here (“they went out of us”), the sense of the preposition is “(away) from”, like the spatial sense of going “out of” (i.e. leaving) a room; here it refers to people who, according to the author, have left the Community. In the last three occurrences of the expression, “out of us” signifies origin and identity—i.e., “coming out of”, as in a birth, and so belonging to a person or group (like a child to a family). In the central clause, the two meanings are brought together: if these people truly belonged to the (rest of the) Community, they would not have left it. This last point is expressed in Johannine language, familiar from the Gospel, using the verb ménœ (“remain, abide”)—if they had belonged as believers with the rest of us, they would have remained with us. In the Gospel and letters of John, the verb ménœ has profound theological significance in terms of Christian identity—the believer “remaining” in Christ, and Christ “remaining” in the believer. The author goes so far as to state that the divisive conflict within the Community has taken place (according to God’s own purpose) so that it might be revealed those who are true believers, and those who are not.

Verse 20

“And you hold (the) anointing [chrísma] from the Holy (One), and you all have seen [i.e. known].”

The translation “Antichrist(s)” in verse 19 loses the important connection here between chrísma (“anointing”) and antíchristos (“against the Anointed”). There is an emphatic contrast intended between the author’s audience, assumed to be true believers, and those who have left the Community. The true believer holds the anointing of Christ (the Anointed One), and so could never be “against the Anointed”. Though it has to be inferred here, in speaking of “anointing” the author means the presence of Jesus in and among believers through the Spirit. The title “Holy (One)” (hágios) here almost certainly signifies Jesus (rather than God the Father), parallel (and partially synonymous) with “Anointed (One)”. The adjective pántes (“all”) is in emphatic position, stressing that this is so for all true believers. Some manuscripts read pánta (“all things”), but this would seem to be a ‘correction’, since otherwise the verb oídate (“you have seen”) lacks a clear object (compare v. 27). The implication is that all believers, through the presence of the Spirit, can see/know the truth—that is, the truth of who Jesus is, his example that we are to follow, etc.

Verse 21

“And I did not write to you (in) that [i.e. because] you have not seen the truth, but (rather) that you have seen it, and (have seen) that every lie is not out of the truth.”

There is a definite rhetorical purpose for the author to continue to address his reader with the presumption that they are true believers, repeatedly confirming this point. It would seem that it is intended to persuade his audience to stay away from the ‘false’ believers who have separated, and to treat them as non-believers (belonging to the world). This will become increasingly clear as we proceed through the letters, and is a point that needs to be considered with the utmost care. At any rate, here the author affirms that his readers, as true believers, have seen the truth (and will surely continue to do so). The language in the final clause mirrors that used in verse 19. A lie does not come out of the truth, in the sense of belonging to it, even as those who separated from the Community do not belong to it. This implicitly characterizes them as false believers.

Verse 22

“Who is the false (one) if not the (one) denying that Yeshua is the Anointed (One)? This is the (one who is) against the Anointed [antíchristos]: the (one) denying the Father and the Son.”

Here the false believer is defined more precisely as one “denying that Yeshua is the Anointed (One)”. From this verse alone, it is impossible to know just what this denial (vb arnéomai) entails. The verb literally means “fail/refuse to speak”, but could also denote “speak/utter against”, bringing it more in line with the idea of being “against” the Anointed One. A superficial reading might suggest Jews who refuse to accept Jesus as the Messiah; however, given the obvious Christian context of 1 John, this can scarcely be correct. Presumably everyone in the Community, even those who separated from it, would have affirmed the basic identification of Jesus as the Anointed One, however the title was understood precisely. And this seem to be just what was at issue—what does it mean to say that Jesus is the Anointed One? As history has proven, believers can adhere to a common Christological belief, while understanding it in very different ways. The second portion of verse 22, I think, brings more clarity to how the author views the matter: denying Jesus as the Anointed One is essentially the equivalent of denying the Father and the Son. As the Gospel John makes abundantly clear, the person of Jesus is fundamentally defined in terms of the relationship between God the Father and Jesus as God’s Son.

Verse 23

“Every (one) denying the Son does not even hold the Father, (but) the (one) giving common account of the Son holds the Father also.”

The opposite of denying (arnéomai), or failing to properly acknowledge, Jesus is to give an account as one (vb homologéœ) regarding him, i.e. to recognize and confess belief in him in unity with other believers. The logic is clear and simple: those who ‘deny’ Jesus cannot have a bond or relationship with God as their Father; however, if they properly recognize Jesus, which means being united with him, then they are united with the Father (as His children) as well. This all reinforces the idea that those who separated from the Community are not (and could not have been) united with God (and Christ) as believers.

Verse 24

“(That) which you heard from the beginning, it must remain in you; (and), if it should remain in you, (that) which you heard from the beginning, (then) indeed you will remain in the Son and in the Father.”

Here, remaining in union with God the Father and Jesus the Son is dependent on the message/truth which believers have heard (and accepted) remaining in them. This formulation clearly echoes that of 1:1-4 (see the previous study), with its key use of the expression “from the beginning” (ap’ arch¢¡s), embued with theological and Christological meaning. The message about who Jesus is, which goes back to the very beginning—both of the proclamation of the Gospel and the Creation itself—will continue to be upheld by every true believer. We still do not know, at this point in the letter, precisely how the view of those who separated from the Community differs, only that, in the mind of the author, it contradicts the fundamental message of the Gospel.

Verse 25

“And this (truly) is the message which he gave about (this) to us—the Life of the Age.”

The expression “life of the Age [i.e. Age to Come]” is an eschatological idiom, signifying the future blessed life (in heaven) for the righteous, but which, in the Johannine writings, has special theological meaning: as the (eternal) Life which God possesses, and which He gives to His Son (Jesus), and, through him, to believers. Thus the message (angelía) is not merely the words of the Gospel that are proclaimed about Jesus, but the life-giving power and presence of Jesus (the Son) himself. An even clearer definition of “Eternal Life” along these lines is found in the Gospel (17:3; cf. also 20:31, etc). The compound noun epangelía, literally a message about something, is often used in the sense of what a person will do about something, i.e. a promise, and so the word is typically translated in the New Testament. Here it should be understood more generally, in terms of the (Gospel) message about Jesus—who he is (in relation to the Father), and what God has done through him—that believers have heard and accepted “from the beginning”.

Verse 26

“I write these (thing)s to you, about the (one)s making you stray (from the truth).”

Here, in spite of assurances to his readers that they are true believers, the author clearly recognizes the real (and present) danger that there are people causing members of the Community to go astray (vb. planáœ). He uses a present participle, indicating that this is active and ongoing at the time he is writing. As noted above, the author clearly wishes to convince his readers of the error of these people, and to avoid them, regarding them instead as false believers. The statement “I write these things” should be understood of the letter (1 John) as a whole—the purpose of writing was to warn his readers of these people who might make them go astray.

Verse 27

“And (as for) you, the anointing which you received from him, it remains in you and you do not hold (the) need that any (one) should teach you; but, as his anointing teaches you about all (thing)s, and is true and is not (something) false, (so) also, even as it taught you, you are to remain in it.”

This verse summarizes the previous instruction, functioning as a reinforcing exhortation to readers. The precise force of it depends on a minor, but significant, textual question involving the last three words. The verb ménete (again the important Johannine vb ménœ, “remain”) can be read as either a present indicative (“you [do] remain”) or an imperative (“[you must] remain”):

    • “even as it taught you, (so) you remain in it” (indicative)—i.e. one naturally follows as a consequence of the other for believers, the emphasis being on the work of the “anointing” (i.e. the Spirit)
    • “even as it taught you, (so) you must remain in it” (imperative)—the emphasis shifts to the believer, his/her response to instruction by the Spirit/Anointing, involving a willingness to remain in the Spirit’s teaching.

I believe that at least some measure of imperative force is intended, based on the importance of the message which the author is intending to convey to his readers, exhorting them to remain fully rooted in the Community and the view of Jesus Christ which the author affirms for the Community. I have sought to preserve this, while recognizing the textual ambiguity, by translating “you are to remain…”.

Should the final pronoun in the prepositional phrase (en autœ¡) be understood as a reference to the anointing (“in it“), or to the person (Jesus) who relates to the believer through the anointing (“in him“). On the basic assumption that the anointing essentially refers to the Spirit (a point to be clarified in upcoming studies), which is also the manifest presence of Jesus in and among believers, either translation would be acceptable. I believe that the immediate point of reference in the closing words, consistent with the sense of verse 27 as a whole, is to the anointing (i.e. the Spirit). The same question of translation, of course, comes up when rendering passages mentioning the Spirit—should the Spirit be referred to as “it” or “he”? It is largely a matter of preference, though there are theological implications also which should not be ignored.

I hope that the exegetical treatment of 1 John 2:18-27 above is helpful in elucidating the circumstances under which the author is writing. We may summarize this briefly as:

    • There has been a conflict (and split) in the Community, with certain members (and congregations?) separating from the rest.
    • These people hold a view of Jesus (as the Anointed One and Son of God) which is viewed as erroneous and/or incompatible with the Johannine Gospel message.
    • This view of Jesus is characterized as “denying” him, and/or speaking “against” him—thus the label of these people as “against the Anointed” (antichrist).
    • This aspect of their view of Jesus, and their willingness to separate from the rest of the Community, marks them as false believers.
    • To some extent, these people (and their view of Jesus) have influenced others in the Community, causing some to “go astray”. In spite of the author’s assumption, in his writing, that his readers are true believers, he clearly recognizes the danger that they may still be misled by the ‘false’ ones.

The views of these ‘false’ believers are further explained in the remainder of 1 John, and we will have occasion to study this in greater depth. However, next week, I wish to shift the focus a bit, moving from historical criticism to a particularly difficult and challenging theological aspect of the work—namely, the seemingly contradictory message presented in 1 John: that believers both are and are not able to sin, and that the true believer both does and does not commit sin. This is addressed at several points in the letter; we will begin with an examination of 2:28-3:10. I would ask you to read this passage carefully, bringing out for yourself any of the questions that naturally come up for Christians today; I expect you will find them addressed, in some fashion, in our study…next Saturday.